Metro Science: The very first artists, superhero species, and one mother to rule them all
Your most interesting science stories of the week.
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Neanderthals: They’re just like us
Since the first skull was found in Germany 162 years ago, we’ve defined our closest relatives – the Neanderthals – according to how we thought they were not like us: Not smart, not agile, not abstract, not verbal. But new science puts that theory to rest once and for all. Neanderthals were the first artists. And they were really, truly, human too.
Who were the Neanderthals?
The ancestors of Neanderthals migrated out of Africa an estimated 400,000 to 800,000 years ago. They roamed Europe and parts of Asia until they went extinct about 40,000 years ago. They coexisted with us Homo sapiens for about 5,000 years, living alongside us and interbreeding.
The assumption’s always been that we out-hunted and outsmarted our shorter, stockier, and ridged-faced cousins. But new evidence – and a look back at past science with a critical eye – suggests that, in addition to being genetically very similar to humans, Neanderthals had many traits we think of as uniquely human.
They made art
A new paper in the journal Science uses Uranium-thorium dating – which works on older objects than radiocarbon dating – to date cave paintings from Spain to 64,800 years ago, long before modern humans arrived in Europe. Neanderthals must have made the abstract squiggles, dots, lines and hand prints, which predate all the human art we know of.
They signed their work
Neanderthals used their own hands as stencils; holding them up and spraying pigment over top to leave an impression, like a signature. They were “deliberately placed in relation to natural features in caves rather than randomly created,” suggesting they were “meaningful symbols,” the paper says.
They got dressed up – fancy
Another new paper, also analyzing a cave in Spain, found that Neanderthals painted seashells with red pigment and punched holes in them to create strings of beads 115,000 years ago. These discoveries have led scientists to conclude that, like people, they had a complex culture built around objects – both useful and symbolic – they passed down from generation to generation through language.
So what happened?
So why did they go extinct? No one knows for sure. But one idea blames their habit of living in small groups. Useful ideas – like sewing needles, which helped early humans make better clothes to brave the elements – didn’t spread as easily, given humans the competitive edge.
Science story: Superhero species
The most meme-worthy micro-organisms, the tardigrades, have a new species. Nicknamed "water bears," this tiny pond creature can withstand boiling and survive in outer space. The new species, discovered in Japan, looks like an egg with tentacles on top.
Sound smart: Your science vocabulary for the week is Mitochondrial Eve
Mitochondrial Eve is the most recent matrilineal common ancestor shared by all humans alive today. She's named after mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down directly from mothers to children (men don't pass theirs on). She's both a theoretical concept and an actual person who lived 200,000 years ago-ish, probably in what is now Ethiopia.
Use it in a sentence: Deborah's nickname is Mitochondrial Eve because her views are 200,000 years out of date.